Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

By Catalina Maria Johnson

“When we were doing it, we didn’t know what was going to happen. No one knew that!,” exclaims Eliades Ochoa, one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club. This legendary band of Cuban musical veteranos who had created the rhythm of Cuban music in the 40’s and 50’s became a worldwide musical phenomenon it when it released its only studio album in 1997 (produced by Ry Cooder) and was featured in Wim Wenders’ acclaimed 1999 documentary.

Ochoa is speaking by phone and already traveling on the tour that will bring 13-piece Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club to Symphony Center on Sunday, Sept. 29 at 7:00. It is a pleasure to converse with Ochoa, hearing his vibrant voice as he punctuates his comments with hearty laughs.

The current lineup features the four remaining Buena Vista Social Club alumni, and Ochoa says the orchestra’s success had to do with two factors: First and above all, the tremendous force of the musical history of  artists such as legendary vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo, virtuoso pianist Ruben Gonzalez—“all five-star artists!”, he adds.

Secondly, Ochoa is of the opinion that the traditional cuban music, the son cubano, had been… “forgotten, it wasn’t been heard like in other times. You heard nueva trova, filin, but not traditional son cubano. The Buena Vista Social Club arrived right at the perfect moment. The world was so ready to hear that sound! The world needed that sound”.

Ochoa explains that he considers traditional Cuban music exceptionally special because it has “something that hooks you! People hear it and it stays with them. I like to listen to all kinds of music, but our music, once it gets to you, it stays with you and it’s really hot, like the sun of Santiago de Cuba!”

He comments that despite their primary role of reviving traditional son cubano, there has been evolution in the Buena Vista Social Club and they have composed new songs as well as preserved the standards. Even though many of the original members have passed away,  he states that “We have are young musicians with so much talent, truly capable of filling the vacuum left by those that transitioned to a different world. That emptiness that you feel when here is a Ruben Gonzales missing…the young man that is playing the piano now [Rolando Luna] it is such a joy to hear him play!

Nevertheless, the remaining elders of the orchestra are getting ready to retire. The orchestra’s visit to Chicago may be in fact one of our last opportunities to see the Buena Vista Social Club, as Ochoa explains that there is talk of one last world/wide tour next year before the orquestra officially retires, “Some of our members just need to rest! Guajiro Mirabal [trumpet player] is 80, and Omara Portuondo [vocalist] is 83! They can’t be constantly going from plane to plane and concert to concert.

However, as for himself, Ochoa has no plans of retiring, he says, “Me, I have my group, “El Patria, since 1978, and we just got the Latin Grammy last year!”

Ochoa plans to be performing on the world stages for a long time, and of course, he will always be wearing his iconic hat, “I was born in the country. I am a campesino, and that’s what guajiros do! My hat is like my passport”

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